Cover image of "Black Flags," a history of ISIS

One thing is unmistakably clear nearly from the outset of this outstanding inquiry into the history of ISIS: the bombings, the beheadings, the execution of hundreds of people at a time — we brought it all on ourselves with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Black Flags, the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick, may not be the final word on today’s leading terrorist scourge but it’s a great start at understanding how the so-called Islamic State came into being.

Heroes and villains in the story of ISIS

There are heroes as well as villains in Black Flags. Jordan’s King, Abdullah II, is at the top of the list of heroes for his prescience in foreseeing the inevitable consequences of the Iraq invasion and his ongoing pleas to the U.S. government to avoid the great mistakes it made there. Joining the King on the list are a gifted CIA analyst named Nada Bakos; Robert Ford, a heroic former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and other countries;  and Abu Haytham, a senior Jordanian counter-terrorism official.

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick ★★★★★

The villains stand out, too. Principal among them was the terrorist known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the uneducated street thug who founded what for a time was called Al Qaeda in Iraq and later morphed into ISIS. Along with Zarqawi near the top of the list of sociopaths is the self-appointed “caliph” of the Islamic State, Abu Makr al-Baghdadi, once an intellectual cleric who was radicalized by his experience in an Iraqi prison and rose to the leadership of the terrorist movement.

Given the author’s perspective on the root cause of the rise of ISIS, I would have to add Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush to the list of villains in this story. Cheney and Rumsfeld simply had to understand that they were acting on false intelligence, and Bush couldn’t possibly have been so ignorant as to be unaware of the enmity between Sunni and Shi’a. (Reportedly, Bush didn’t know there were “two kinds of Muslims.”) Together, these three and their many acolytes conspired to commit the greatest blunder in the history of U.S. foreign and military policy, and we’ve all been paying the price for that ever since.

About the author

Joby Warrick is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post who has covered  the intelligence community, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and other topics for the paper. Black Flags is his second book. The first, in 2011, was The Triple Agent, which recounted the story of the grisly attack on a U.S. Army base in Afghanistan in which six CIA officers were killed.

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